Free Trade

March 20, 2016

This week’s blog will be about free trade.  Donald Trump first made it one of two signature Presidential campaign issues, then Bernie Sanders joined the chorus and now Hillary Clinton has made it part of her campaign speech. Have trade agreements with other countries put Americans at a disadvantage?

Most economists will not even entertain the idea.  The benefits of free trade are ultimately based on the benefits of specialization, the idea that everyone benefits when the most efficient producers supply a good or service.  Each producer achieves a comparative advantage (CA) in that specialization.   First formalized by economist David Ricardo in the 19th century, CA has long been a bedrock of micro-economic theory and introductory economics textbooks.

Greg Mankiw’s Prinicples of Economics cites the example of a rancher and farmer, who both benefit when they specialize.  The rancher concentrates on raising beef, the farmer raises potatoes and they produce more beef and potatoes at a lower cost than if the rancher and farmer did both. (Chapter 3)

A key concept to understanding CA is another bedrock economic principle:  opportunity cost, or what someone has to give up (the cost) to get some good or service (opportunity).  Each person, each country wants to minimize the cost to take advantage of the opportunity.

The same principle can be extended to international trade.  If a Mexican company can produce a good at a more efficient cost than an American company, then Americans will benefit if they buy the good from Mexico and sell something to Mexico which an American company can produce at a cheaper cost.  The ill effects in a particular part of the country are balanced by the good effects in another part of the country or economy, and lower prices benefit all Americans.

When countries impose tariffs on imports, those goods become more expensive for consumers. Economists talk about the “deadweight loss” from tariffs. Here is a graph of the negative effects of tariffs and more discussion on the topic.

The matter would seem settled then, as economist Paul Krugman noted in a 1987 paper : “the underlying commonality among conventional trade models is such that until a few years ago international trade theory was one of the most unified fields in economics.”

As early as the 1960s, economists questioned some aspects of conventional trade models, leading to the development of new models. Krugman notes, “The new view of international trade holds that trade is to an important degree driven by economies of scale rather than comparative advantage, and that international markets are typically imperfectly competitive.” [my emphasis]

Economies of scale. What’s that? This idea, also called increasing return, is when a producer gets a greater growth in outputs than the growth in inputs.  Increasing returns become a force separate from comparative advantage that leads to a “geographical concentration of production of each good,” or regional oligopolies.  We see this phenomenon in southeast Asia, Indonesia and Australia, where a complex web of materials and components production dominates the global electronics market.

“The view that free trade is the best of all possible policies is part of the general case for laissez-faire in a market economy, and rests on the proposition that markets are efficient. If increasing returns and imperfect competition are necessary parts of the explanation of international trade, however, we are living in a second-best world where government intervention can in principle improve on market outcomes.” [my emphasis]  The new idea in trade models is that strategic trade policy by a government “can tilt the terms of oligopolistic competition to shift excess returns from foreign to domestic firms.”  On the campaign stump, Trump makes the same case, although a bit less elegantly; that the U.S. government should make trade deals that shift the benefits of trade back to American workers and producers.  Is Trump channeling Paul Krugman?

Not quite.  Krugman notes three sometimes vociferous criticisms of government intervention. 1) The difficulty in measuring, understanding and modeling imperfect markets makes it impossible to formulate just the right policy.  2) If the government is going to intervene, companies will devote some resources to compete for favors from government, a process called “rent-seeking.” 3) Markets will make adjustments to offset intervention.  Other governments will initiate policies to counter the effects of a government’s intervention.

Krugman concludes “This is not the old argument that free trade is optimal because markets are efficient. Instead, it is a sadder but wiser argument for free trade as a rule of thumb in a world whose politics are as imperfect as its markets.”  This is the argument that Adam Smith made for laissez-faire capitalism, finding it undesireable but better than the alternatives.  Smith spent considerable effort in his book The Wealth of Nations to recount the degree of political corruption that distorted economies and society, that poisoned the human character.

That Krugman disregards those cautions when he favors government intervention within domestic markets confirms the fact that economists are human.

Economist Ian Fletcher presents far more arguments against free trade than Krugman. I would add an additional consideration.  When economists compute the costs of free trade policies, they use a model which does not include the economic benefits provided to workers displaced by free trade policies.  The costs are presumed to be offset by higher taxes from those areas of the country which benefit from free trade.  Admittably, these costs and additional tax revenues attributable to free trade policies are difficult to measure.  However, I do think that the effort should be made.  I suspect that the benefits paid to dislocated workers and the total negative effect, the multiplier, of the lost economic activity have not been fully accounted for and that free trade is much more costly than conventional models portray.

Even if we can measure and agree on the facts, we can not agree on what those facts mean.  Whatever the facts, we prefer our familiar and favorite idea.  They not only reassure us but are also well integrated into our values, and our philosophical sense of life.

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